Television

What’s New in Allen v. Farrow

HBO’s Woody Allen documentary plays us two voices we’ve never heard before.

All three have long hair—Ronan’s blonde hair is in a long bowl cut—as Mia appears to read to them from a children’s book
Mia Farrow with children Satchel (now Ronan) and Dylan in an undated photo. HBO

It’s the voices I can’t get out of my head. Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s four-part documentary Allen v. Farrow, which begins airing on HBO Sunday, is an exhaustive recounting of the evidence that Woody Allen sexually molested his 7-year-old adoptive daughter Dylan in 1992, featuring on-camera interviews with witnesses, experts, and even, at length, Dylan herself. Most of the allegations have been aired before, although they’ve never been marshaled into such a potent public case for the prosecution. (Allen himself declined to be interviewed, although each episode ends by disclaiming that he has denied the allegations and was never charged with a crime.) But the series makes public for the first time the videotape that Mia Farrow, then at the end of a 12-year relationship with Allen, shot of Dylan in the days following Aug. 4, 1992, describing how Allen allegedly led her to an attic crawlspace and sexually assaulted her—and already growing tired of reliving the experience she has now spent most of her life recounting.

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Although Dylan is a presence throughout the series, she comes especially to the fore in its last two hours, which are dedicated, respectively, to the lawsuit over custody of Dylan and her younger brother, Satchel (now Ronan)—which Allen lost—and the criminal investigation of Allen for sexual assault, which did not result in Allen being charged with a crime, although prosecutor Frank Maco claimed he had probable cause to do so. The reasoning given at the time was that Maco couldn’t make a case without putting Dylan on the witness stand and didn’t want to risk re-traumatizing her by doing so, and so Allen stayed free and the press moved on to covering his sexual relationship with Farrow’s adult adoptive daughter Soon-Yi Previn. One of the most damning passages in Allen v. Farrow recounts how Allen’s relationship with Previn was allowed to dominate headlines at the time, effectively eclipsing Dylan’s allegations, which couldn’t be approached with the same salacious fascination. By the end of August 1992, the pattern had fallen into place. Time’s Aug. 31 issue featured Allen’s face and the cover slug “Woody Allen defends himself,” but the interior Q&A by Walter Isaacson was headlined “The Heart Wants What It Wants” and was overwhelmingly focused on Allen’s romance with Soon-Yi, beginning and ending with him framing himself as a man who’d loved not wisely but too well, and dragging Emily Dickinson into it to boot.

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The adult Dylan spoke up in 2014, in an open letter that challenged Allen’s admirers to reconcile their love of his work with the damage he had done to her—an act that finally started to shift public opinion away from him and laid an early cornerstone of the #MeToo movement. (Allen responded with the movie Irrational Man, a Dostoevsky riff whose hero proves his existential liberation by poisoning an unethical family court judge.) But in Allen v. Farrow, Dylan says that she remained, in some ways, “the little girl on that tape”—the one whose voice we are finally hearing now, nearly 30 years later.

Evaluating a child’s testimony is a process best left to specialists, several of whom concluded at the time that Dylan’s account was factual, a verdict seconded by several more in Allen v. Farrow. (Allen and his lawyers cited the findings of three specialists from Yale–New Haven Hospital’s Child Sexual Abuse Clinic, who concluded that Dylan’s account was not credible, but the documentary’s experts point out that she was interviewed by them nine separate times—far more than any child and potential trauma victim should be subjected to, and enough that inconsistencies in even a true story would be likely to appear.) But putting Dylan on screen, at age 7 and, through earlier home-movie footage, even younger, underscores just how terribly fragile and vulnerable she was. The world has only known the adult Dylan, the one strong enough to come forward knowing that she would undoubtedly face a torrent of abuse and worse—and knowing even then that she still might not be believed. But it’s not just her we have to deal with. It’s the little girl on the tape, telling us her story, telling us it was wrong.

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There’s another voice in Allen v. Farrow I’ve never heard before, and it’s Woody Allen’s. I’ve been listening to Woody Allen for almost as long as I can remember, since my dad first showed me Sleeper as a child. I’ve even interviewed him, face to face, years before Dylan’s allegations resurfaced. But I’ve never heard him the way we do here. In public appearances, on talk shows, even in the home videos from Dylan’s childhood, he’s the familiar figure we once thought we knew, playing up his comic humiliation as he asks Dylan to repeat a comment about how “other daddies” look handsome in their bathing suits. But when he’s on the phone with Farrow during the custody hearing and the criminal investigation, he sounds like a different person. (As it turns out, both of them were taping their conversations, although it seems to be Allen’s recordings we’re hearing here.) It’s the absences that struck me more than anything else: the lack of emotion, of apparent concern, of anything remotely “Woody Allen.” As Farrow begs him to tell her where he and Dylan went on Aug. 4, pleading for any explanation that might be less than a nightmare, he responds, low and utterly even, “All the details, when the time comes.” You could, I suppose, read it as the distant response of a wrongly accused man abiding by his lawyer’s advice not to give up any details outside of court. But it’s the closest I’ve come to being able to imagine the tone of voice he might have used as he said the words that 7-year-old Dylan attributed to him: “Don’t move. I have to do this.”

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Allen v. Farrow mixes with its account of Dylan’s abuse a strain of cultural criticism (including comments from Slate’s Lili Loofbourow) that reminds us how much clout he wielded at his peak, how loving Woody Allen movies was not just an aesthetic preference but, at least for some, a way of life. It wasn’t just that Allen ingratiated himself to the public, one commentator argues, but that he groomed us, training his audience to accept not just his comedic style or his self-rationalizing philosophical stances but the pairing of his ever-aging male leads with much younger women. When former model Christina Engelhardt came forward in 2018 to announce that she had been the 16-year-old whose sexual relationship with Allen formed the inspiration for Manhattan—a movie in which his 42-year-old character is involved with a 17-year-old played by Mariel Hemingway—she told the publication she had “no regrets.” But in Allen v. Farrow, she says that relationship has “taken a toll” on her life. Hemingway wrote in her own memoir that after she turned 18, Allen attempted to seduce her by saying he’d take her to Paris—a promise that Dylan said he also made to her. Paris is also where Woody Allen took his audience in 2011, with Midnight in Paris. That trip won him an Oscar, but it also set the stage for Farrow’s open letter less than two years later, and the long-overdue reckoning with the full weight of her allegations. Woody Allen is still making movies, and his last release, A Rainy Day in New York, made $22 million despite negligible U.S. box office, but now that we’ve heard these other voices, he may never be “Woody” again.

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